Catalonia herpetological trip

May 2024. By Gabri Mtnez

In 2023, when we had 20.000 members in the group «Serpientes ibéricas» in Facebook, I uploaded a collage of specimens of Vipera latastei of many places of Iberia of the three recognized subspecies: latastei, gaditana and arundana. Commenting with some friends I admitted that my favourite future latastei population to search for in habitat was the Catalonian one. Some specimens has sharp zigzag pattern whereas others look pale resembling Vipera aspis individuals.

After that, Jordi Ribó, a young Catalonian herpetologist sent me a message, proposing me to visit Catalonia and search together these vipers. We never met in person but we talked a lot in the past about herp trips to Morocco or Israel.

For working I had to visit Barcelona a Tuesday at the end of May. So I got job permission for the Monday and my wife would take care of our kid so I got the chance to visit Catalonia from the previous weekend.

I arrived Barcelona the Friday very late. I asked Jordi to try to see 2 main targets: a Catalonian Vipera latastei and a Natrix helvetica (I only saw one in my life in the French Basque Country just killed on road).

Itinerary of the trip: 1) Tarragona mountains, 2) Val d´Aran

Early in the morning we reached some mountains in Tarragona. The night was cold and humid so the morning dew was in all the plants and rocks. With the first rays of sun Jordi and I began to walk in the habitat and we could see the first lizards actived.

Tarragona mountains
Psammodromus algirus, basking
Podarcis liolepis, adult male

We visited a local restaurant to take a coffee and later continued searching in the habitat. The temperature was higher and higher and the lizards began to appeared everywhere until we could find the first snake of the trip, a big adult female Vipera latastei.

Habitat of Vipera latastei, Psammodromus algirus and Podarcis liolepis
Female Podarcis liolepis
Podarcis liolepis, female
Male Podarcis liolepis hunting
Female Vipera latastei latastei
Vipera latastei from Tarragona, note the extreme black tail
Vipera latastei, close-up
Nice greenish Podarcis liolepis, male

After the photo session we were going to leave the mountains when Jordi decided to make a last stop. The day began to be very cloudy and even cold and when we began to walk in the new spot an adult Timon nevadensis dissapeared fast in some rocks. We were going to flip a metalic flat thing when we heard a puff inside a very close bush. We checked carefully the area and discovered another viper. This time it was an adult male, much more contrasted, with sharp zizzag and amazing grey colour. My top 1 snake when I wanted to visit Catalonia. Flipping some stones we saw 2 skinks (Chalcides bedriagai).

Amazing male Vipera latastei latastei from Catalonia
Vipera latastei
Vipera latastei, close up. Interesting the absence of dark marks in the supralabial scales
Chalcides bedrigai
Mountains of Tarragona

After that amazing and success morning we left the mountains direction to the second spot of the trip: the Val d´Aran. Before that we stopped in Tarragona to search a old construction that acted as trap for animals and we found another big water channel that also had some herps trapped inside.

Trap for animals in Tarragona
Adult Zamenis scalaris and Hemorrhois hippocrepis found dead inside a old construction in Tarragona
Water channel. In aprox 200m we rescued 2 Psammodromus algirus, 1 Pelophylax perezi and over 5 Epidalea calamita

Psammodromus algirus
Epidalea calamita, dorsal view
Epidalea calamita, close-up
Pelophylax perezi rescued from the channel
The road trip between Tarragona and Val d´Aran

We arrived very late to Val d´Aran so just took 2 pizzas and directly went for sleeping.

The night was cold but the next morning there were no clouds and the sun appeared fast. And with the first rays of light we saw the first lizards (Podarcis muralis) and first snakes (Hierophis viridiflavus).

Grass habitat in Val d´Aran, home of plenty Hierophis viridiflavus
Podarcis muralis
Hierophis viridiflavus
Hierophis viridiflavus, close-up

Just when the temperature was higher we found the second target of the trip, a Natrix helvetica. And not any Natrix helvetica, a massive female with an awesome presence.

Natrix helvetica
Natrix helvetica, close-up

With our target species found we decided to left the area to search for more species. Leaving the spot we saw from the car the 5th Hierophis of the morning, basking in a rock in a busy trail. Amazing spot!!!

Hierophis viridiflavus, subadult in situ

We visited a mountain lake. It was Sunday so there was lot of people around, so we just make a short visit and left the place. In the visit we could see lots of Bufo spinosus (adults and tadpoles), Alytes obstetricans (adults, juveniles and tadpoles), frogs (Rana temporaria and Pelophylax sp.) and newts (Lissotriton helveticus).

Mountain lake in Val d´Aran
Lissotriton helveticus, aquatic phase
High abundance of Bufo spinosus tadpoles in the edges of the lake
Bufo spinosus and tadpoles
Alytes obstetricans, male carrying eggs
More Alytes under stones, in this case female, male and juvenile
Lissotriton helveticus, terrestrial phase
Rana temporaria, rescued of a human construction around the lake with 2 dead Alytes and a dead rodent

At the middle of the day we visited a high mountain spot, where Jordi had seen several vipers in the past. The day was cloudy, windy and cold but we got to see 5 Vipera aspis (including a melanotic specimen) and a Coronella austriaca.

Vipers paradise in Val d´Aran
Vipera aspis
Vipera aspis, close-up
Juvenile Vipera aspis, shedding
Amazing melanotic Vipera aspis
Dorsal view of the melanotic specimen of Vipera aspis
Close-up of the melanotic Vipera aspis
Vipera aspis, 4th specimen surprisingly found in the grass, far of rocks
Vipera aspis and habitat
Vipera aspis, juvenile in situ
Amazing patterns in the aspis vipers
Coronella austriaca. Specimens of the highest areas of the Pyrinees looks in my opinion much nicer than rest of populations
Coronella austriaca, close-up

The day was simply perfect and we stopped to eat some sandwiches waitting Gerard Carbonell, another local herpetogist that would join us with a double target: a juvenile Natrix helvetica and an Alytes obstetricans amplexus. Jordi and I was laughting about these crazy targets, but the day was simply crazy and everything could happen.

We met Gerard and decided to visit another spot. It was a really wet valley where Zamenis longissimus was found several times. They had never seen Natrix helvetica there but it was found close so they could be around. We didn´t expect that under the first stone flipped appeared a juvenile Natrix helvetica (Gerard had been searching for it during more than 4 years!). After that tiny cool snakes other species appeared flipping: Natrix maura and Anguis fragilis. We moved to a closer spot where we found another Hierophis viridiflavus and several Podarcis muralis.

Natrix helvetica and Natrix maura habitat
Natrix helvetica, juvenile
Natrix helvetica, close-up of a juvenile
Natrix maura, juvenile
Meadow habitat, perfect for Podarcis muralis and Hierophis viridiflavus

Finally and before left the place, we moved to a more «mediterranean» habitat. We were discussing that in southern Iberia that would be perfect for Coronella girondica when walking in the road appeared a juvenile Coronella girondica, the 6th snake species of the day (after 6 Hierophis viridiflavus, 5 Vipera aspis, 2 Natrix helvetica, Natrix maura and Coronella austriaca). Simply incredible

Habitat in Val d´Aran of Coronella girondica and Lacerta bilineata
Coronella girondica
Coronella girondica, close-up

After that crazy day, we decided to eat another pizza and go to sleep to a place with a high density of Alytes. The idea was to see an amplexus of Alytes, but finally we saw 7. The Alytes were everywhere calling, in simple or multiple amplexus, even sometimes with juveniles around the adults in mating behavior. A really crazy night

Bufo spinosus, juvenile and adult Alytes obsetricans. In situ photo showing the high density of these species in some spots of Val d´Aran
Alytes obstetricans, triple
Alytes obstetricans, amplexus
Alytes obstetricans, strange position
Bufo spinosus in defensive behavior. Nobody touched him before that
Bufo spinosus
Bufo spinosus and Alytes obstetricans tadpoles should have any protection against fish to have these amazing densities in places with abundance of fish

I left Jordi and Gerard making photos of amphibians at 2.00-2.30h in the night. I was tired after probably my best herping day in Europe in my entire life.

Monday morning was really cold and cloudy. We walking around and just spotted some animals flipping. Many toads, Podarcis muralis, Anguis fragilis and a nice male Lacerta bilineata.

Walls, perfect spots for reptiles
Male Lacerta bilineata
Lacerta bilineata, dorsal photo

Anguis fragilis
Nice male Podarcis muralis
Podarcis muralis, close-up

We moved to another spot less cloudy and found a snake even with very cold weather.

Hierophis viridiflavus

Finally before finish the trip we visited the Zamenis longissimus again. Although the cloudy weather, the Podarcis muralis were actived, and we only could see a snake that seemed to have a disease.

Podarcis muralis, «basking» with clouds and cold weather
Coronella girondica, probably infested with the fungus Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola

A year before Jordi already found in that spot a Zamenis longissimus that gave positive in the fungus Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, so find a second snake was really a bad new. Many people of all Europe visit usually Vall d´Aran for herping so it´s quite possible anybody keep the virus to these extremely pure habitats. Or maybe there weren´t other causes. Anyway, hope Catalonian scientifics do advances in the fight against this virus before it expands to the rest of Iberia. The 3 of us cleaned our gloves and boots with Virkon with the hope of not being the cause of expansion of that hazard.

After these amazing days we finish an incredible and short trip. Catalonia has a wide mediterranean area full of amazing species but also atlantic habitats and high mountains. It´s a unique place in Europe for herping and I really hope to return one day.

Extremely thanks to Jordi and Gerard for the company and show me these amazing habitats.

Gabri Mtnez, Gerard Carbonell and Jordi Ribo
My kid extremely happy at home with the Gerard gift